The Politics of an Open Heart

By Rev. Dr. John McNeill, Senior Pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca, NY

Many of us have heard the rule of etiquette that would forbid us to talk about religion or politics in general company. The danger is said to be that people will disagree and thus become disagreeable. As a politically committed teenager in the 1960s, my mother forbade me from engaging my grandparents on political issues.

As a pastor of a church I can scarcely avoid talking about religion, and over the years I have regularly been chided for talking either too much or too little about politics.

While politics and politicians have acquired a nasty or unsavory reputation among many of us, the fact of the matter is that any group that makes decisions on how to live or work together has a politics. Politics can be done well or poorly, justly or unjustly. Politics can strengthen a community or doom it.

The political conflicts that seem to be growing sharper can either lead us to wall ourselves off from one another, or inspire us to open our hearts to one another as we seek to understand how our experiences, fears, and hopes have led us to our conflicting positions.

As this campaign season gains intensity, I invite us all to reflect on how we conduct our politics and the importance of honoring one another and the stories that we bring to our political conversations.

I pray that we will open our hearts to one another so that even political conversations might become prayerful conversations. That is to say, conversations in which we become aware of love’s presence and love’s invitation to embody the ways of compassion and justice in the world.

Each one of us is carrying some truth, and as we open our hearts to one another, we help one another speak and listen in the light of that deeper reality. We need not be governed by cynicism or animosity. We can cultivate the courage to trust one another as we open our hearts to the stories each of us have to share and honor one another’s experience.

Later this summer St. Paul’s United Methodist Church will begin to more intentionally listen to the prophets of ancient Israel with their message of justice, integrity, community, and hope. These prophets call us to cultivate the habits of an open heart in the midst of conflict, disappointment, and danger. These habits include the practices of gratitude, acknowledging fragility and grief, attentiveness, and cultivating an appreciation for the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. We will be praying together for the politics of an open heart to take hold.